What Is Synecdoche? Definition of Synecdoche and Examples in Literature

Written by MasterClass

May 23, 2019 • 4 min read

The word synecdoche might sound intimidating and archaic, but chances are you’re probably already using synecdoche in your writing and everyday speech. Synecdoche is an incredibly useful tool to employ in your prose to help emphasize important themes for your reader and to make the imagery in your writing more vivid.


What Is Synecdoche?

Synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee) is derived from the greek word synekdoche defined as “simultaneous meaning.” The contemporary English definition of synecdoche is: a literary device where a word for a small component of something can stand in rhetorically for the larger whole, or vice versa. While this might sound confusing, chances are you use synecdoche all the time in your daily life.

When referring to the Los Angeles Dodgers, you might say “Los Angeles beat New York last night.” When talking about the executive branch of the United States you might say “The White House is working on a budget compromise.” These are both examples of synecdoche: The city of LA didn’t literally destroy the city of New York, just as the actual structure of the White House is not engaged in budget negotiations. With synecdoche, we use a small part of a phrase or entity rhetorically to stand in for the whole.

The 2 Types of Synecdoche

There are many different types of synecdoche that function slightly differently, but all can be generally categorized them into two broad categories:

  1. Macrocosm. This is when a larger entity is used to refer to a small part within it. When we say “Los Angeles beat New York last night” we are using the city name Los Angeles to refer to a team that plays for Los Angeles.
  2. Microcosm. This use of synecdoche occurs when a small part of something stands in to refer to the larger whole. Sometimes people use “gray beard” as a figure of speech to refer to an old man, using a small part of an elderly man’s body to refer to a single man or class of men as a whole.

How to Use Synecdoche in Writing

When approaching synecdoche in your own work, it’s important to know what you are trying to achieve. Synecdoche used in fictional world building is very different from synecdoche as poetic image. Consider the following uses of synecdoche and how they can be used in your own work:

  • Between Characters. Using synecdoche can be a good way of showing familiarity between characters. Think about using either existing or original synecdoches in conversation between characters to show that they have a shared understanding and common vocabulary.
  • World Building. If you are creating a fictional world, think about making new synecdoches that fit into your universe. Using unique synecdoches can make your world feel fully realized and more approachable to your reader.
  • Symbolism. Using a synecdoche can emphasize the symbolic importance of a specific part of a whole. Think about how you can use synecdoche emphasize the larger symbols and themes at play in your work.
  • Vivid prose. Synecdoche can also be a great way to make your writing more vivid and your imagery more palpable. Try to think of new ways to describe something by coming up with a unique synecdoche—identify a part that is not normally used to describe the larger whole.

What Is the Difference Between Metonymy and Synecdoche?

Synecdoche takes a part of something and uses it to refer to the whole thing, whereas metonymy takes something that is related but not a part of another entity to refer to it. In the common saying “the pen is mightier than the sword”, the pen is a metonym that stands in for the act of writing to which it is related. Metonym is commonly found in popular figures of speech and, along with synecdoche, can be used to great effect in your writing.

Examples of Synecdoche in Literature and Film

  • In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the word Denmark to refer to the King of Denmark. In this way, he emphasizes the importance of the King as embodying the whole of the nation state. Hamlet must not only avenge one man’s death he must right a wrong perpetrated against the entire nation, thus amping up the stakes that propel the drama from start to finish.
  • In Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” Dickinson starts her second stanza with the line “The Eyes around—had wrung them dry” to describe the mourners surrounding the speaker’s deathbed. By referring to the mourners only as the eyes, she emphasizes the voyeuristic nature of the scene while also playing on the many tears that have been shed. She uses “eyes” as a synecdoche to imply to the reader that the others in the room are there mainly to watch and to cry. It is a vivid and resonant use of synecdoche that helps paint a picture for the reader.
  • In the film Synecdoche, New York the protagonist attempts to create a miniature theatrical recreation of the outside world to embody the concept of synecdoche. The film deconstructs the concept of synecdoche and how it is at play in art and the outside world.

Once you start paying attention, you’ll start to see examples of synecdoche all around you. Look for ways that synecdoche is used that appeal to you and start to emulate these in your own writing. Synecdoche is a versatile tool to improve your writing and understanding its history and functions will benefit you greatly.

Learn more writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.